FIREBUSH

Also Known As
ENGLISH:
Butterfly Bush
Firecracker Bush
Hummingbird Bush
Scarlet Bush
SPANISH:
Bálsamo
Coloradillo
MEXICO, MAYAN:
Ix-canan in Mayan = “guardian of the forest”
SYNONYMS
Hamelia coccinea 
Hamelia erecta


Order:   Gentianales
Family:   Rubiaceae
Genus:    Hamelia
Species: patens

Florida c s

Edible Parts
Fruit Caution
Animal Interaction
Insect Hummingbird Bird Butterfly
Other Uses
Medicinal Ferment
This plant is known to the Mayan as Ix-canan, meaning “guardian of the forest.” What I love most about this pretty native shrub are the many hummingbirds and Zebra Longwing butterflies that visit the long-blooming flowers [forming in cymes] that are scattered among my two acre food forest garden. When in bloom, they can be quite showy. They make a nice inter-planting in a new food forest, tolerating both shade [at the start of the planting] and shade [as the trees grow over time and cast shade]. The ripe fruits are edible, yet are not at all choice in my opinion, often leaving a bitter taste in ones mouth. Some shrubs have fruits that I have eaten in the wild that are less bitter than others. I would like to see sweeter-tasting wild selections named and cultivated. I have read that a wine is made from the ripe fruits in Mexico. It is interesting to note the multiple countries in Central and South America that have used this plant externally to treat skin problems. I encourage any herbalists out there to contact me if you have any personal experience with this plant. Birds, especially mockingbirds, catbirds, and vireos, seem to relish the ripe fruits. Wasps also nectar at the flowers, and Halictid bees [specifically the green-iridescent "Pure Golden Green Sweat Bee," Augochlora pura] are considered the principal pollinators. Around sunset, look for Pluto Sphinx and Nessus Sphinx moths which hover around the flowers, sipping nectar and laying their eggs on the leaves for their caterpillars to consume after hatching. CAUTION: Dwarf cultivars are available, but please read my caution below relating to them, and why you might want to avoid planting them. Much thanks to native plant expert and friend, Roger Hammer, for his article which made me aware of the hybrid-problem. 



CAUTION: One may want to avoid planting hybrid Firebush. “An exotic relative, H. patens var. glabra, with yellowish-red flowers and mostly hairless leaves, is commonly sold is South Florida. It is beginning to naturaliz and poses a hybridization threat to our native Firebush. For a review of "The Hamelia Mess" by well-respected native plant expert and friend, Roger Hammer, visit the Florida Association of Native Nurseries website” at ,
[http://www.floridanativenurseries.org/info/plants/the-hamelia-mess/]

EDIBLE FRUIT:  Black, ripe fruits are edible, juicy, and have many small seeds.  Eaten raw, made into wine (especially in Mexico) or syrup.  Green Deane describes it as having an initial sweetness & grape-texture that yields to a sticky, lingering, slightly bitter aftertaste in the back of the mouth.  I find that most have a slightly bitter aftertaste, but not all. For that reason, I would like to see named selection chosen for their edible qualities. Harvest most of the year.
MEDICINAL USES

- MEDICINAL SAP: Sap to treat skin rashes.   
- MEDICINAL LEABES, STEMS AND FLOWERS: Leaves, stems & flowers boiled in Belize & applied topically to treat skin problems. 
Other Central & South American tribes use is medicinally. 
- EXTERNAL MEDICINAL USES: : Incisions bathed in the plant juice heal quicker than applying petroleum jelly.
WILDLIFE
: Hummingbirds & butterflies often visit the flowers.  Birds eat the ripe fruits. In my garden both mockingbirds and catbirds seem to relish the ripe fruits. Also, "blue-headed vireos consume the small fruits.” [2] It attracts “gulf fritillary butterflies,” [2] as well as various sulphur butterflies.  “The stamens are within and inserted on the corolla tube forming a distinct nectar cavity. The nectar is accessible to long-tongued insects, such as butterflies, and to hummingbirds and halictid bees. The bees are considered the principal pollinator as they crawl down the floral tube to gain nectar.” [2] According to Regional Conservation, Firebush “Nectar plant for black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), statira sulphur (Phoebis statira) and other butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other insects; a small, iridescent-green halictid bee (Augochlora pura) is one of the more effective pollinators. Pure Golden Green Sweat Bee might be a good common name for Augochlora pura. [4] Birds, including mockingbirds and catbirds, eat the fruits.” [3,4]
- HOST PLANT TO: According to Regional Conservation, Firebush “provides significant food and cover for wildlife. Larval host plant for the pluto sphinx (Xylophanes pluto) moth.“ [3] These hummingbird-like moths visit the blossom at dusk for nectar and to lay eggs on the leaves.” [2] 
LANDSCAPE USES: "“It works well in hedges, mixed borders, or as a stand-alone shrub.” [2] Also as a "flowering shrub, small flowering tree," [2] 

More Details

NATIVE TO: South Florida, south to Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Also, the Bahamas and parts of the Caribbean. In Florida, it grows in the wild in scattered counties from Marion County, near Gainesville, southwards, as well as two panhandle counties.
HABITAT: "Hammocks and thickets.” [3]
DESCRIPTION
:  Shrub.
- HEIGHT: 8-12 feet tall, 15 feet if given support, “though it can easily be kept to five or eight feet tall.” [2] Reported to over 18' with trunks to 6" diameter.
- SPREAD: 5-8 foot spread. 
- FLOWERS: Beautiful orange-red, tubular flower over a long blooming period, “from late spring until the first frost.” [2] Flowers- in cymes. BOTANICAL NOTE: Cyme: “A flat-topped determinate inflorescence, in which the terminal flower blooms first.”
HYBRIDS / CULTIVARS: “Dwarf firebush (Hamelia patens var. glabra) is a related plant that is shorter, produces lighter colored flowers, has smoother leaves, and is not native. Nurseries will sometimes sell these same plants under the name Hamelia patens 'Dwarf' or 'Compacta.' There is also a new cultivar called H. patens 'Firefly' that has leaves and flowers that are about half the normal size.” [2] CAUTION: “An exotic relative, H. patens var. glabra, with yellowish-red flowers and mostly hairless leaves, is commonly sold is South Florida. It is beginning to naturalize and poses a hybridization threat to our native Firebush. For a review of "The Hamelia Mess" by well-respected native plant expert and friend, Roger Hammer, visit the Florida Association of Native Nurseries website” at , [http://www.floridanativenurseries.org/info/plants/the-hamelia-mess/]
CULTURE:
- HARDINESS: USDA Zones 9-11.  The University of Florida lists it as being cold hardy north into zone 8 on some of their webpages, and to 10A on others, and while this is true that I often survives where plants die back in freezes such as north Florida, I list it as to 9. It can be killed to the ground in a hard freeze. “In North Florida, it will die back after the first freeze but will re-grow in the spring, making it what some people call a "root-hardy perennial.“ [2] It is root hardy through Zone 9, it regrows rapidly if frost killed. “In South and Central Florida, leaves often become red when temperatures drop into the 40°s F. Plants shed their leaves and may have dead stems when temperatures fall into the high 30’s and below.” [2]
- LIGHT: “It will grow and flower best if planted in full sun, but it can also be planted in partial shade.”
- DROUGHT TOLERANCE: Good, once established. [2]
- HEAT TOLERANCE: Good, once established. [2]
- WIND TOLERANCE: Low. [2]
- SOIL: “It can grow in a range of soils." [2] It prefers well-drained soil. [2] 
- PESTS AND DISEASES: It "has no serious insect or disease problems.” [2] Aphids may infest some bushes. [2]
- PROPAGATION: Propagate by fresh seeds, cuttings, or air layers. I find that feral seedlings transplant quite well. 


Flowering Calendar
J
F
M
A
M
J
J
A
S
O
N
D


Flower Color
Orange
Fruit Color
Black
Height
15 feet
Rate of Growth
Fast


Hardiness Zone
9a to 11b
Ease of growth
Very Easy
Light
Part Sun Full Sun
Soil
Poor Sandy Rich Clay Well-Drained
Tolerances
Drought Tolerant



References

[1] eattheweeds.com 
[2] IFAS - Lee County 
[3] Regional Conservation [including a link to an article by Roger Hammer] 
[4] US Forest Service 
Last Updated: October 28, 2017